Archive for November 2010

Is anything untranslatable?

November 11, 2010

Duane has hosted the most recent edition of Four Stone Hearth at Abnormal Interests. There were some very interesting posts from the world of Anthropology that I would recommend, but the most interesting to me was the last, Translating the untranslatable, in which Geoffery K. Pullam pokes some fun at the notion that languages have words which are “untranslatable”. Follow the link for the list, here are a few of Pullam’s comments:

“Who on earth ever argued that translatability only exists when source text words are mapped bijectively to target words, each with exactly the same shade of meaning as the corresponding source word? Does French jeune fille fail to translate English girl, and ne … pas fail to translate not? Does English fall down fail to translate French tomber, and look at fail to translate regarder? What kind of madness is this?”

“Your language may use a phrase where mine uses a single word, and vice versa. We can still come to understand each other perfectly.”

Now, his use of the adverb “perfectly” did make me cringe a bit, but you get the point. To the extent that languages code a common human experience, that experience can be mapped from one language to another reasonably well. One commenter made the interesting observation, however, that these “untranslatable” words are often suggested by native speakers (or perhaps researchers with a particular bond to the language) who see them as representative of a unique aspect of their own culture. Therefore, there is a certain degree of pride in the idea that the word is untranslatable.

What are some good candidates for “untranslatable” words from biblical Hebrew or other ANE languages?







Young, Ian, “What is ‘Late Biblical Hebrew’?” Pages 253-268 in A Palimpsest: Rhetoric, Ideology, Stylistics, and Language Relating to Persian Israel, Edited by Ehud Ben Zvi, Diana Edelman, and Frank Polak. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2009.

November 4, 2010

The third chapter of my dissertation explores the difference in the use of את between SBH and LBH, so I have been wading into some of the recent debate over chronology and typology in biblical Hebrew. In this short article, Young gives a helpful summary of the new approach that he has developed along with Robert Rezetko and Martin Ehrvensärd.

While most students learn Biblical Hebrew (BH) as a monolithic whole, the Hebrew Bible does reflect a certain degree of linguistic diversity. Scholars commonly distinguish three types of Hebrew in the biblical period:

1. Archaic Biblical Hebrew is only represented in older poetry such as Jd 5, Ex 15, etc.

2. Early Biblical Hebrew (EBH, also termed Classical Biblical Hebrew or Standard Biblical Hebrew) is the type normally taught in BH grammars. This is generally considered to be a literary language used during the pre-exilic, monarchic period. The core EBH books include the Pentateuch and Joshua-Kings.

3. Late Biblical Hebrew (LBH) is the post-exilic language found primarily in the books of Esther, Chronicles, and Ezra-Nehemiah.

It has generally been assumed that the exile marked a time of social and political upheaval which had linguistic repercussions. The returning exiles would have mainly spoken Aramaic, the high language, while the lower classes who remained in the West would have spoken a vernacular Hebrew which was the ancestor of Rabbinic Hebrew. The new literary language, LBH, therefore, represents the chronological development of EBH under these influences.

Hurvitz (and others) has further argued that post-exilic authors would be unable to write in proper EBH, but that LBH features betray their setting. Therefore, scholars have attempted to use the linguistic typology developed for works whose provenance is relatively certain to establish the chronology of works whose dating is less certain. For instance, Polzin (1976) isolated several features of LBH which he then used to analyze the date of the P source. Hurvitz has also analyzed the date of several Psalms (Hurvitz 1972) and the relationship of P to Ezekiel (Hurvitz 1982).

The relationship between typology and chronology, however, is always troublesome, particularly when there are few independent data points to connect the two. As Kaufman (1986) has argued in regards to script typology, socio-linguistic issues such as dialect geography and diglossia must also be taken into consideration. In this vein, Young, along with Rezetko and Ehrvensärd, has developed the argument that EBH and LBH do not represent the chronological development of a single dialect, but two separate dialects which could have coexisted within the same language community. EBH is a more conservative dialect while LBH is less-so, allowing more variety.

Though Hurvitz argued that the presence of LBH features betrays the hand of post-exilic authors, most of the features isolated as representative of LBH are also found in the core EBH works, just less frequently. Therefore, the presence of a feature itself cannot be an indication of date. Young, Rezetko, and Ehrvensärd illustrated this by counting the number of LBH features in random 500 word samples from various biblical and non-biblical texts. While the accumulation of LBH features is greater in the core LBH books, there were several works which were clearly written in the post-exilic period but which feature a low density of LBH features (e.g. Job 1:1-2:11a, Ben Sira 41:2-44:4, Pesher Habakkuk 5:3-12:13). On the other hand, the pre-exilic Arad Ostraca had more LBH elements than any of the EBH samples considered.

Therefore, if these core EBH texts are in fact pre-exilic, then these LBH features cannot be post-exilic, and Young argues that the choice to use the LBH or its corresponding SBH feature must be stylistic rather than chronological. It is better, therefore, to view LBH not as a ‘deteriorated’ form of SBH, but as a distinct dialect.

In the conclusion to his earlier edited volume (Young 2003), Young suggested that the use of the two dialects could relate to geography. The books written in LBH are also generally considered to have an eastern provenance, while the books written in EBH originated in Judah. While he still likes this theory, he also notes several problems, most notably that Chronicles is generally considered to have a western provenance (though see Person 2010). Here, Young refines this view, suggesting that while LBH features were available to EBH writers, it was only in the eastern diaspora that a new literary style developed which was open to their use. This LBH style may have then migrated to the west where it was used for the last chapters of Daniel and at Qumran.


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